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A Classical Feud

Winds of change: Upsets shake up the Texas Music Festival, prove blowing doesn't suck

Texas Music Festival young artist competition June 2013 musicians
The six finalists of the 2013 Texas Music Festival Cynthia Woods Mitchell Young Artist Competition are, from left, Siyu Zhang (violin), Caroline Cox (violin), Nathan Varga (double bass), Caity Piccini (flute, third-place winner), Julian Hernandez (clarinet, second-place winner) and Jessica Findley (bassoon, first-place winner). Photo by Susan Farb-Morris
Texas Music Festival young artist competition June 2013 people
The winners with maestro Horst Förster, left, and Alan Austin, Texas Music Festival's general and artistic director, right.  Photo by Susan Farb-Morris
Texas Music Festival young artist competition June 2013 musicians
Texas Music Festival young artist competition June 2013 people
Joel Luks, head shot, column mug, April 2013

It's a cold, harsh, cruel world out there for woodwind players. Being pit against string instruments in classical music competitions . . . you might as well call it quits.

Be it the repertoire, the virtuosic prowess, the showmanship, the flair or simply that one has to breathe every now and then to keep sounding, those who huff, puff and flutter to make music typically don't stand a chance when compared to those who fiddle and vibrate.

But not at this year's Cynthia Woods Mitchell Young Artists competition — winds were a changing.

The 24th annual feud, a part of the Immanuel & Helen Olshan Texas Music Festival, produced unexpected, yet well deserved results. Three wind players took the top three spots, a testament that just because you blow, it doesn't mean you suck — comparably speaking (have a sense of humor, will you?).

What started with more than 40 entrants in two different categories — string (violins, violas, cellos and double basses) and everything else (woodwinds, brass and percussion) — came down to six finalists for the concluding round at the University of Houston on Sunday. The event, open to Texas Music Festival orchestral fellows, offers cash prizes and solo opportunities alongside local, national and international notoriety.

 "If you play Mozart honestly, with ease, if you concentrate on bringing out the natural phrases and lean on the leading tone — you can never go wrong with Mozart."

It was Wichita-native, bassoonist Jessica Findley, 21, who earned the highest honor from a panel of judges that included Houston Symphony associate principal viola Joan DerHovsepian, Shepherd School of Music clarinet faculty Richie Hawley, Houston Symphony cellist Anthony Kitai, Enso Quartet violinist Maureen Nelson, Houston Symphony trumpeter Anthony Prisk, Moores School of Music director David Ashley White and this reporter. Findley wowed with a spirited, elegant and witty interpretation of Mozart's Concerto for Bassoon in B-flat Major.

"I think of the Mozart concerto as an old friend that I keep on coming back to again and again," Findley says of the piece that also helped her win the concerto competition earlier this year at the University of Kansas, where she just finished her junior year. "If you play Mozart honestly, with ease, if you concentrate on bringing out the natural phrases and lean on the leading tones — you can never go wrong with Mozart."

Findley will take the spotlight in this weekend's concert run — at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion on Friday and at the Moores Opera House on Saturday — accompanied by the Texas Festival Orchestra led by maestro Horst Förster, founder and conductor of the Leipzig Academic Orchestra. Complementing the playbill are Richard Strauss tone poem Don Juan and Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5 in E Minor.

Förster plans to invite the young bassoonist to perform the elegant score with his ensemble in the Grand Hall of Leipzig Gewandhaus.

Clarinetist Julian Hernandez, 22, an El Paso-resident who's working on a master's degree at the University of Michigan, took second place. A silky, colorful timbre and perky articulation supported well crafted phrases in his rendition of Carl Maria von Weber's Concertino for Clarinet in C Minor. The third place and the People's Choice award went to a DMA student of Houston Symphony principal flutist Aralee Dorough.

Caity Piccini chose the first movement of Carl Nielsen's Concerto for Flute and Orchestra for the final round, impressing listeners with a luscious, sparkly and cantando voice rich with harmonic overtones.

Violinists Caroline Cox and Siyu Zhang, and double bassist Nathan Varga represented their instrument family extremely well. And as this competition encourages young classical music stars to refine their audition skills, this judge says everyone's a winner.

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